A new, 2,400-square-foot pocket park has been wedged within the crowded grid of Midtown, Manhattan. The 50th Street Commons was designed by AECOM and takes its inspiration from the beloved Paley Park just blocks north. A water feature on the back wall defines the space, but the new park is more than a micro oasis. It masks a ventilation system for the MTA’s long-delayed and over-budget East Side Access project. The new access, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal, is now scheduled for completion in 2022.
“50th Street Commons is our way of giving back to the Midtown Manhattan community, which has endured the inconveniences of construction for a number of years,” said Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, the president of MTA Capital Construction, in a statement. “While most of the construction for East Side Access is underground, this is an aspect of the project that will be a visible improvement for everyone in Manhattan.”
Andrew Lavallee, a principal at AECOM, explained that while 50th Street Commons is roughly organized like Paley, the architects took steps to differentiate it from the modernist retreat. “Paley is a piece of sculpture,” he said, “this is a piece of landscape.”
To create a more “voluptuous” feel for the space, AECOM flanked the park’s walls with vines and trellises, and used curved planting boxes to bring landscaped elements into the main space. In total, 22 plant species were incorporated into the narrow park. Paving and seating, made of green and black granite, extend from the sidewalk to the glass waterfall, which changes colors throughout the day. As with Paley, moveable tables and chairs are stationed in front of the water feature.
Creating a public park atop such a significant ventilation system presented a unique, and fairly obvious, challenge for AECOM and the MTA: how to dampen unwanted noise. “We always understood that acoustics were going to be an issue,” said Lavallee in an email, “so we designed the water as a ‘masking’ of the vent noise and ambient street noise rather than competing with it. We were relying on psychological proximity of distraction more than anything else.” The vent is located behind the water feature.
The MTA says it did its part to reduce noise levels as well. The agency used dampers and sound absorbing materials within the facility to stop as much of the sounds as possible from reaching the street level. AECOM started work on the design in 2007 and received the UrbanMerit Award from the New York chapter of the AIA the following year.